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The international foundation established by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros has agreed to cover the costs to scientists from a number of developing countries of publishing research in open-access journals run by the Public Library of Science (PLoS).

The new grants programme was announced last week by PLoS and the Open Society Institute (OSI). It will cover the costs of 12 months' 'institutional membership' to PLoS for 50 selected institutions in developing and transition countries (the latter referring to former communist states in eastern Europe).

Under the programme, which follows a similar scheme already funded by OSI with the publishing company BioMed Central, any scientist working in such an institution will be able to publish his or her results in PLoS journals free of charge.

OSI officials say that the new programme reflects their commitment to the principle of free access to the results of scientific research. In particular, they hope it will draw attention to the potential benefits that open-access models of scientific publishing offer to researchers in the developing world.

"Scientists in poorer countries have been virtually excluded from the journal publishing world," says Darius Cuplinskas, director of the Institute's information programme. "Open access journals will remove barriers and make these scientists full members of the international scientific community."

For their part, PLoS staff say that the OSI-funded scheme provides an answer to critics who have challenged their business model as being unsustainable.

Some doubts, for example, have been expressed over the financial implications of large numbers of scientists from developing countries seeking publication in PLoS journals while asking for a waiver – as PLoS has promised – from the author fees that the journals charge.

"The debate about open access has shifted recently; doubts about its value have been replaced with doubts about its viability," says Helen Doyle, director of development and strategic alliances for PLoS. "This commitment from OSI answers the question of how scientists in developing countries will be able to publish in our journals on a large scale."

Doyle adds that editors and reviewers will not know whether authors have applied for a waiver of charges, in order to ensure that the peer review process is not influenced by a researcher's ability to pay publication charges.

Melissa Hagemann, programme manager at OSI responsible for its open-access project, says that the Institute is keen to stimulate a capacity in developing-country research institutions to make full use of open-access publishing. The PLoS grants programme "is a good way of advertising open access, and raising awareness among these institutions about what is possible".

But she says that the OSI is not able to make a long-term commitment to any one organisation to achieve this. "If we sponsor an institution for one year, then we hope that it will be able to pick up the payment itself the next year," says Hagemann, adding that she also hoped other funding agencies will follow OSI's example.

The awards of institutional membership to PLoS will be made four times a year. They are restricted to institutions engaged in research in the biological and/or medical sciences in one of the 45 developing and transition countries that have been selected as potential beneficiaries by OSI. The closing date for the first round of applications is 15 April.